Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Distinction with a Difference

Isaiah makes the following statement, generally considered to be messianic:

“But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me?”

Now, hold up there for a moment. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Lord Jesus was both shamed and humiliated.

His Humiliation

After all, the New Testament plainly says so:
“... looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

“In his humiliation justice was denied him.”
The latter passage, of course, is yet another NT quote from Isaiah, but as Philip told the Ethiopian eunuch, it most emphatically speaks of Jesus.

But if so, what are we to make of “I have not been disgraced” and “I shall not be put to shame”, statements Isaiah so clearly ascribes to Messiah? Did the prophet miss the boat? Was he wrong?

An Explicit Fulfillment

We cannot evade the difficulty by arguing that Isaiah is speaking of himself personally, of some other contemporary figure, or even of his nation personified. None of those will work. No, the context in Isaiah is incontestably messianic. We are only a couple of lines from “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard.” Nobody can reasonably dispute that this passage had been consistently applied to Messiah by Jews for almost 750 years prior to the time of Christ, and continues to be applied to the Lord Jesus by Christians for two millennia thereafter.

Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant could scarcely have been more explicitly fulfilled than in the way we read of it in Matthew’s gospel, Mark’s, Luke’s and John’s.

A Little Word Study

A little background here on the Hebrew words used in verses 7 and 8 of Isaiah 50. The word “disgraced” is kalam, meaning verbal reproach, public embarrassment, or bullying. It can be used either to describe the actions of the victimizer(s) or, alternatively, the emotional response of the victim.

The second word, translated “put to shame” in the ESV, is buwsh. It is close in meaning, but not quite a synonym. It describes the same sort of behaviors as kalam, but consistently from the perspective of the victim. Understandably, the two words are often found in the same context. It means to feel humiliation or to experience disappointment; to have one’s hopes dashed.

A Face Like Flint

Thus it seems to me that Isaiah must be using kalam here in its second sense: describing the reaction of the Lord Jesus to the indignities heaped upon him rather than the indignities themselves.

You see, in his public treatment by the Jewish authorities, every possible attempt was made externally to humiliate, bully, shame, harass and embarrass him. Every possible abuse that could be contemplated by the leadership of the sin-sick religious travesty Judaism had become was hurled at the Lord Jesus in an attempt to break him. We cannot argue that the Jews failed to publicly heap shame on him, to hold him up to ridicule, or to make their marks on his body. Those facts are well established.

But we can confirm with Isaiah that they absolutely and completely failed to make him ashamed. He could say, “I have set my face like flint.” The Lord Jesus could certainly be made to feel pain, but not to feel shame, knowing that “He who vindicates me is near.”

When we feel shame or disgrace, it is because our circumstances have revealed to the world some moral failure, some inadequacy, some inability to protect ourselves. We believe we should somehow have done better, or that others in our place would have. None of this could ever be true of the Lord Jesus, who throughout every moment in his humiliation could have atomized his tormentors with a single word of appeal to his Father. Every moment of his suffering was voluntarily accepted, not inflicted against his will.

Temptation and Shame

We may conceptualize the Lord’s reaction to humiliation along the lines of his reaction to temptation. Both were experiences completely external to him. They found no place to alight and make their home in his heart. Being beyond reproach, possessing no personal guilt at all in what was taking place, he could be stripped of his robes, beaten, spit upon and buffeted repeatedly, yet without feeling shame or disgrace. The actions of his opponents made a profound statement about their own spiritual condition, but said nothing about his. He could say with conviction, “I have not been disgraced. I shall not be put to shame.”

For the Lord Jesus, shame would have consisted not in enduring humiliation, but in turning back from it, unable to complete the Father’s work or to do his will. For him, such a response was impossible, either in his capacity as Servant or Son. Instead, doing precisely what he had been sent to do, he could say, “I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” He endured the cross, despising the shame. Literally, he viewed shame as of no consequence. It was a total non-factor in his considerations.

Finally, as Isaiah reports, the triumphant Messiah cries out, “Who will contend with me? Who is my adversary? Who will declare me guilty?”

Who indeed.

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